Libyan military guards inspect one of the buildings at the U.S. diplomatic… (Mohammed Hannon / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — Maryland insurance executive Christopher Moody believes much of the news media is missing a major scandal in how the Obama administration responded to the attack in eastern Libya that killed four Americans.
Based on reports he's seen and heard on Fox News, talk radio and elsewhere, Moody is positive that officials watched a live video feed in the White House situation room from an overhead drone as the attack in Benghazi unfolded. He knows that a U.S. Special Operations team was available in Sicily to help rescue the besieged Americans, but wasn't sent. He is sure that President Obama or his aides refused requests to dispatch an AC-130 Spectre gunship that could have mowed down the attackers with its fearsome rotating cannons.
"The bottom line," emailed Moody, whose father was a Democratic U.S. senator from Michigan, "is that [Obama] had the ability to save those four Americans and didn't do it."
PHOTOS: U.S. ambassador killed in attack on consulate in Libya
Officials in the Pentagon and the intelligence community contend that none of those assertions are true.
In an extraordinary effort to refute them, senior intelligence officials released a detailed timeline Thursday of CIA actions in Benghazi, after trying for weeks to keep the extent of the CIA's presence there a secret. Pentagon officials, meanwhile, disclosed details about military forces they set in motion after learning of the attack.
Senior intelligence and Defense officials say there was some coverage by unarmed surveillance drones during part of the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack, but no feed was available for the president. The Special Operations team arrived on the Italian island of Sicily hours after the attack was over. And "no AC-130 was within a continent's range of Benghazi," Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
Important questions remain about what exactly happened before, during and after the incident that led to the deaths of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, including whether warnings went unheeded, why facilities weren't better secured and why officials initially linked the attack to a street protest that never happened.
The new account of CIA actions, for example, shows that the agency's security officers did not appear to have the heavy weapons they needed to repel the attack, and it shows how deeply the U.S. was relying on Libyan security forces that melted away. Congress and a State Department accountability review board are investigating why the security was so inadequate, both for the ambassador and for a major CIA intelligence operation as Benghazi was growing more dangerous.
But in Washington, the pursuit of answers has been complicated by a fog of partisan-driven misinformation that is notable even by election-year standards. With just days to go before the presidential election, legitimate criticism over the incident has become entangled with conspiracy theories alleging that the president and his top national security advisors intentionally or recklessly allowed Americans to die.
On the issue of a military response, the Obama administration got an unusual boost Friday by former George W. Bush administration Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who wrote in a blog post that "the US did almost everything possible to protect our people once the attacks had started, though not in advance. … Decision makers in Washington appear to have been leaning forward, as they should have been. The military's most capable rescue force, based on the East Coast, was deployed immediately (something that is very rarely done), but — given the distances involved — arrived at Sigonella only after the crisis was over." Sigonella is the site of a U.S. military installation in Sicily.
But Wolfowitz was critical of the administration's handling of the incident in other respects, including what he said were its "persistent misleading comments about the motives of the attackers" and the "failure to do more in advance to respond to the evidence — including pleas by Ambassador [J. Christopher] Stevens himself — to provide better security for U.S. facilities in Benghazi or for the Embassy in Tripoli," the Libyan capital.
And the Wall Street Journal raised new questions Friday about the security arrangements in Benghazi, saying there was "confusion" between the State Department and the CIA about security arrangements for the Americans there.
Republican senators including John McCain of Arizona wrote an op-ed article, published Thursday in the conservative Washington Times, in which they called on the president to answer whether "any member of the U.S. government, including senior administration officials, reject[ed] requests for greater military and intelligence assistance for our personnel on the ground in Benghazi."
Pentagon officials say that didn't happen, and they say there was no viable military option to disrupt sporadic attacks in two separate areas of a city full of people sympathetic to the U.S.